Home > Antiques/Antiquities, International > Buying Art Abroad Can Be Risky

Buying Art Abroad Can Be Risky

The Wall Street Journal recently published an informative  article  about bringing certain art/artifacts/decorative art into the United States – as tourists.  Some of us have experienced this first hand despite an export permit from a foreign country.

Buying Art Abroad Can Be Risky

We all want mementos from trips abroad. But if you’re thinking of buying a piece of fine or decorative art, think again.

A number of international laws bar the exportation of certain kinds of rare and treasured objects from most countries—a fact some unfortunate travelers aren’t made aware of until they return home.

Take, for example, the U.S. university professor who bought a small statuette at a shop in Central America. He didn’t know the object was pre-Columbian and so prohibited by law from leaving the country. U.S. Customs officials confiscated the professor’s statuette at the border, says the professor’s Los Angeles lawyer, David Stepp.

The U.S. has signed various international agreements—a ban on exports of endangered species, for example, and another forbidding the export of pre-Columbian artifacts. Thus, when someone attempts to bring an object into the U.S. in violation of these agreements, they are breaking U.S. law.

Banned in Brazil

But the specifics of these bans can differ significantly depending on the country, making it hard for travelers to keep track. In Brazil, for instance, the export of objects produced before 1889 is prohibited, while the Italian government forbids the export of all cultural property more than 50 years old. Vietnam and Russia don’t allow any cultural property to leave their borders permanently.


Skins and stuffed animals seized by Homeland Security Investigations agents in December 2007 from a yacht at Port Everglades in Broward County, Fla. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Sometimes even professionals get tripped up. An antiques dealer and client of Daniel J. Gluck, a partner in a Manhattan law firm that specializes in customs and international trade law, returned to the U.S. from the Middle East with a tomb carving he had purchased in a shop. The object was confiscated by U.S. Customs, which contacted the Middle Eastern country’s government. “They claimed the piece was a national treasure and that the item was stolen,” Mr. Gluck says. “We disagreed with their claims, but we settled the matter by having my client donate the item to that country and having any record of this dispute removed.”

Many nations with embargoes and restrictions have considerable black-market activity in which sellers of the contraband either don’t know about the rules or lie to customers about them. Established dealers also aren’t above selling forbidden objects and claiming ignorance afterward.

U.S. Customs officials are trained to identify certain types of cultural contraband, based on where the traveler is coming from. Since 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs agents have intercepted more than 7,125 cultural and archaeological artifacts that have since been returned to 26 countries. In 2012, some 4,000 objects illegally taken from Mexico alone were returned.

Some cases would appear to be the work of actual smugglers. In 1999, a Ford pick-up truck was stopped at a border crossing in Progreso, Texas, carrying 222 pre-Columbian artifacts stashed in an ice chest.


But even tourists who think they’re following the law can get tripped up by details—and pay a hefty price. Miami lawyer Stephen Wagner tells of a client who bought an antique backgammon set in Europe for $7,000. The box featured inlays of ivory, which is contraband under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But the set was more than 100 years old, Mr. Wagner says, so, according to the terms of treaty, it should have been exempt. The set was confiscated by U.S. Customs officials at the airport.

An appeal to European Union officials resulted in an impasse. The EU said it wouldn’t grant a certificate of exemption without first seeing the set. U.S. Customs, meanwhile, wouldn’t release the set without first receiving the certificate. So, the set was destroyed. On top of $7,000 already spent, the tourist was out $3,000 in Customs penalties and lawyer’s fees as well.

Some Defenses

Solutions for travelers aren’t foolproof. A buyer could try to arrange to pay for a piece only after it passes Customs, assigning to the seller the responsibilities of obtaining an export license, insurance and paying for shipping costs.

“Good luck with that,” says New York City customs lawyer Gail Cumins. “Not too many dealers are going to send you things and hope you pay.”

A better possibility could be a partial payment, says Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer based in New York City. Call it “a revocable option to buy,” she says. Have the seller send all paperwork about the object (its history of ownership, when it was made, the selling price) to a lawyer who can determine whether the item can be shipped out of the country. If it can, the purchaser will then pay the balance owed.

Patrick Begos, a lawyer in Southport, Conn., who has handled cultural property cases and was a member of the art law committee of the New York Bar Association, recommends using a lawyer in the country that you visit.

Another possible safeguard is to study up on objects of possible interest—and any applicable export bans—before going abroad. Online sources of information include websites of the U.S. State Department and U.S. Customs, as well as that of the New York-based International Foundation for Art Research. Cultural attachés of foreign consulates based in the U.S. can also be helpful.

If you’re already traveling, contact the host nation’s ministry of culture or the U.S. embassy, says New York lawyer and former Sotheby’s compliance counsel Michael McCullough. Such officials can help interpret the country’s laws and explain how to go about obtaining an export license if one is needed.

“Most export-license requests are granted,” Mr. McCullough says. But even if one buys from an established gallery or auction house abroad, “denial of an export license doesn’t get you out of a sale. You still have to pay.”

Mr. Begos, the Connecticut lawyer, advises: “If you buy something, be prepared to lose it. Don’t pay more than you are willing to walk away from.”

Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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